How Do We Prevent The Big Pharma Takeover of Cannabis?

Marijuana medical prescription as cannabis prescribed by a doctor as an rx note with a leaf burnt into the paper as a medicine symbol for legalized weed as a 3D illustration.

The wave of cannabis legalization sweeping the U.S. and Canada has ended decades of prohibition and misconceptions about a plant with seemingly endless utility. But when the key premise for legalizing a controlled substance is the fact that it has medicinal value, it’s inevitable that Big Pharma is going get involved.

Originally it was viewed as a threat, stifled through excessive lobbying and anti-legalization campaigns based on false premises. But as more states decriminalize and regulate it, pharmaceutical companies are trying to do all they can to prevent medicinal cannabis from cutting into their profit.

An analysis conducted by New Frontier Data Studies found that if cannabis were legalized at a federal level, revenue from the top nine ailments treated by traditional pharmaceuticals could drop by an estimated $18.5 billion over a three-year period. Another study found that legalizing cannabis federally would create more than a million jobs and $132 billion in tax revenue over the following decade.

No wonder major pharmaceutical companies are frantically planning their takeover of the cannabis industry.

Take Insys for example; a company that has recently gained FDA approval for a synthetic cannabis-derivative, despite the company’s overt opposition to legalization. Meanwhile, company executives have been arrested for bribing doctors to push the highly addictive fentanyl, a drug that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

The company’s drug, Syndros, is a synthetic form of cannabis, known as dronabinol – different from street synthetics – administered through oral drops to treat anorexia in AIDS patients, or to curb nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients.

The active cannabinoid in dronabinol is THC; the psychoactive compound in cannabis that gets you high. Ironically, the instructions say users should not smoke cannabis while on dronabinol because there are other compounds in the plant not approved by the FDA. Dronabinol is also still considered a schedule II substance with recognized medicinal value, though still potentially dangerous.

So, the company decided to extract the one compound in cannabis that has given it its dangerous reputation, putting it in a highly concentrated, liquid form where it could be easily over-administered. Sounds much safer than using the plant on its own with the added benefits of complementary cannabinoids used in other therapeutic functions.

But it’s likely Insys never wanted to legalize the drug in the first place, it only developed Snydros when it recognized that profits from opiates might fall. That’s why it donated half a million dollars to anti-legalization efforts. But if you can’t beat them… create a more potent version and take over, right?


Learn about the many benefits and medicinal applications of cannabis in this episode of Psychedelica:

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Cannabis: The Original Medicine

Epidiolex; The First FDA-Approved CBD Medicine

Epidiolex is a recently approved drug that contains cannabidiol, or CBD. Unlike the THC found in Insys’ dronabinol, CBD is not psychoactive and is effective in treating early-onset, treatment-resistant forms of epilepsy in children. Kids as young as two-years-old who suffer from Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes have seen amazing results with these treatments, reducing seizures numbering in some cases up to 100 a day, down to just a few, and sometimes eliminating them entirely. The treatment reduced the median number of patients’ seizures by nearly 42 percent.

In the past, traditional epilepsy drugs did nothing for sufferers of these rare syndromes, and up to 20 percent of patients died from the ailment before the age of 20. And though it’s no panacea, CBD has proven to be more effective than most pharmaceuticals.

But this knowledge is nothing new. In fact, it’s believed cannabis was used for epilepsy treatment as far back as ancient Sumer, nearly 4,000 years ago. Evidence of its use can be found in a number of pharmacopeias throughout antiquity, but because we’ve demonized it in contemporary society, doctors had to re-discover its potential.

Epidiolex is slated for release in the U.S. this fall, and in Europe later next year. Unlike Insys, the company manufacturing the drug, GW Pharmaceuticals, has not sponsored anti-legalization efforts, or created a synthetic version of the psychoactive compound in cannabis. Rather it is targeting and extracting the medicinal compound of the plant, regulating it, and assuring the quality and dosage.

This may be the case where Big Pharma’s resources are beneficial in the regulation and greater debate of legalization. When talking about medicinal applications, the regulatory hurdles that pharmaceutical companies know how to meet can lead to safe and effective products.

Meanwhile, in Canada where federal legalization recently passed, Sandoz laboratories struck a deal with Tilray, one of Canada’s largest licensed cannabis producers, to begin manufacturing non-smokable, medical-grade products.

But this is where things can get tricky. As bulk demand for cannabis increases, smaller producers get muscled out or bought up by larger operations they’re unable to compete with. As these large-scale operations get bigger, they look to cut costs wherever they can, and that’s when companies like Bayer-Monsanto get involved and develop pesticide-resistant seeds that produce higher yields. This, in turn, drives down the cost of the product being sold legally, which drives consumer demand for a cheaper product that has been genetically modified or sprayed with chemicals that are then inhaled or consumed.

And then the corporate model that dictates most major industries in our society has implemented its grasp on the cannabis industry. Is this inevitable? Maybe. But as long as it remains legal to have an allotment of your own plants, organic versions will remain available, and such is the beauty of a plant like cannabis.


Watch the documentary Cannabis to Save My Life, which explores the role cannabis can play in treating certain forms of cancer:

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Cannabis to Save My Life

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